THE North-East’s regional water company was today hit with a near £275,000 court bill over a sewage pollution incident affecting a stream and tributary of the River Wear, in 2017.

In a prosecution brought by The Environment Agency, Northumbrian Water Ltd (NWL) accepted responsibility for the pollution, caused by a blockage in the sewerage network due to damage to manholes on agricultural land near Bishop Auckland.

Despite initial denials in early court hearings, with a trial date set for June this year, the company changed its pleas and admitted two counts of causing a water discharge activity at Newcastle Crown Court, in October.

Lawyers for both the agency and NWL spent more than four hours at the court today outlining the case and mitigation, after which Judge Robert Adams found that the company was “negligent” in its actions.

It followed what Judge Adams said were “entirely forseeable” events, pollution incidents affecting Coundon Burn, with sewerage effluent flowing into the nearby River Gaunless, a tributary of the River Wear, at Auckland Park, on successive days in March 2017.

The court heard blockages within the sewerage system, caused by collapsed bricks from very old manhole chambers, led to a build-up of effluent, which seeped from two manholes and leaked from three others in the vicinity, into the nearby stream.

It caused pollution for several hundred metres of the water course and left sewage fungus lining along a stretch of the bed of the burn.

But it appeared to have a minor impact on the ecology of the area as the water quality improved even by the following day after offending bricks were cleared from the sewerage pipes.

The court heard the company has taken responsible steps since to ensure there will be no repeat, with monitoring of vulnerable manholes, near watercourses and on agricultural areas, plus better liaison with land owners and farm managers to mark the presence of such manholes to avoid further damage caused by farm machinery during arable activity.

It was pointed out that the company oversees water supply and the sewerage system in an area from Teesside to the Scottish border and across to the county boundary with Cumbria, with more than a million manholes, many in rural areas.

The hearing was told its improvements since the incident and a similar sewage pollution episode near Castle Eden, also in 2017, for which the company was fined £540,000 at Durham Crown Court last October, have made it an “industry leader” in preventing pollution.

It has led to a reduction in prosecutions of NWL, which were previously more frequent.

“It’s only fair to point out that since 2014 there has been a substantial improvement,” said Judge Adams.

“They are clearly not the worst offender in terms of all the water companies.

“They appear to have taken steps to remedy the situation.

“The relevant areas marker posts have been put in place to avoid repetition of damage by farm machinery and monitoring equipment has been installed.”

He fined NWL £240,000, with £34,238.50 costs plus a £170 statutory court surcharge, all of which NWL offered to pay within 28 days.

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